SAINT CHRISTOPHER & NEVIS (COMMENTARY – By Joel B. Liburd) - The Federation of St. Christopher and Nevis thought it had exhaled, finally. But that was soon shattered by gunshots in the still of the night that claimed the young life of a national athlete. After being ranked in 2018 as one of the Five Deadliest countries in the world, based on its per capita murder rate that was five times the global average, the Federation had not seen a drop of bloodshed for nearly eight months. Miracle or malaise?
While we would have prayed for the former, we know all too well that crime in any country is practically an institution. It is a business, somewhat like mergers, acquisitions, hostile takeovers, liquidation. Except that criminal activities are done with the human element as collateral, using blood money in underground economies that destabilise the very fabric of democracy.
Unlike poverty, ailing health and failing education systems, crime is one of the few of society's ills that one can simply throw money at. But strangely enough, too many ill-informed administrations – regionally and globally – have made the mistake of playing the soft hand with criminals.
Mind you, this is not a debate on retributive versus restorative justice, but rather examining how crime lords (yes, we now casually call them "lords") have turned to the same political and administrative systems that are supposed to hunt them down, and hoodwinked them into increased profit and protection for their anti-social activities.
There are too many studies to cite, that it is an accepted fact that the moral decay of mankind begins at home. Single mother, absentee father, bad company, missing rod of correction et al. This is further exacerbated by the conditioning in the immediate community and environment. For the most part, it is the lack of access to education and employment, which is where the State gets involved.
All human beings have dreams and aspirations, whether they're born in Manchester or McKnight. They want to be successful leaders, live comfortably, travel to places, educate their children, own their own homes and not be beholden to any neo-Colonial capitalist oppression, as their forefathers endured. Note that having "tigers on a gold leash" and "touching down inna the G5" is not the type of excessive opulence that should be included here.
In the region, many administrations have kept a corner of their beds warm for their respective society's killers, drug barons and contract mafia. It's for a simple reason really. The lifetime of a gang can span many decades, but a politician is only really sure of one term of five years in the Caribbean. It therefore makes sense for the weak, cowardly political leader to foster a symbiotic relationship between the lawmaker and the lawbreaker, so that each can retain their respective grasp on their perceived power base. In short, making crime pay.
In Trinidad and Tobago during the Patrick Manning era, for example, then-Minister of National Security Martin Joseph called the 500-plus murder toll "collateral damage". The takers of many young lives were allowed to continue their trade unhindered, and roam freely. The police detection rate for serious crimes was less than 15 percent; the conviction rate was in single digits.
In an act of desperation, Prime Minister Manning arranged a meeting with nearly two dozen of the country's top-level crime bosses to discuss peace at the now-infamous Crowne Plaza Peace Treaty on September 6, 2006 – months before he called general elections. Instead of bolstering the police service and addressing the case backlogs in the judiciary, the Prime Minister chose to bow to the feet of killers, promising them millions in box-drain contracts, road-sweeping contracts and prize money for community basketball leagues, if they would just stop making his government look bad. But crime rates went through the roof – everyone wanted a piece of this public-purse pie and kidnappings for ransom activated hundreds of millions in fast cash; beheadings and executions increased and "hot spot" zones and turfs dictated the daily commute of ordinary citizens.
In the ten years since that meeting, all the persons present were dead; only two by natural causes – Manning and the patriarch of the Sandy gang.
In 2010 though, Manning's successor, Kamla Persad-Bissessar seemed to have not learned from Manning's playbook, and instead appropriated $400 million to a programme called LifeSport. On paper, it sounded good; creating community programmes to keep at-risk youth off the street. Instead, the result was the creation of a crime force largely aligned to her party, with illiterate gangsters driving around in Range Rovers and sporting gilded AK47s. Members of this new faction have been arrested and charged with the execution of the country's Director of Public Prosecution, Dana Seetahal, on May 4, 2014. But these killers and "dons" are far from languishing behind bars, as they continue to live a luxurious jail life and continue to run their empires from behind the safety of their cells.
Political alignment to violent gangs is not a new phenomenon in the Caribbean. It's been in Jamaica for decades. However, it took the dramatic extradition of Christopher "Coke" Dudus in May 2010 for the world to realize how deeply ingrained and ingratiated Jamaican gangs such as Coke's "Shower Posse" were to the Jamaican political landscape. In 2007, Prime Minister Bruce Golding returned the JLP to power, while representing the very constituency that included Coke's hometown of Tivoli. In 2009, the United States indicted Coke and issued an extradition order for him. Golding refused to accept it, saying it included information from unauthorized wiretaps on Coke's phone.
What happened after was arguably Jamaica's darkest era in generations. Major General Stewart Saunders was the top military man on the island and a close ally of then Prime Minister Bruce Golding. His task? Make it all disappear, and protect Golding's reputation with the United States at all cost. An American Lockheed P-3 Orion spy plane was given airspace clearance to stream real-time footage to a frantic Saunders, who ordered Major Warrenton Dixon to fire mortars into the community. When the dust cleared, 73 bodies were removed in what is now known as the Tivoli Massacre.
In 2010, during the inquiry into the massacre, the attorney representing the Office of the Public Defender, Lord Anthony Gifford, postured that both Saunders and Dixon should be indicted for murder. Politics, again, came in to save the day, and instead, Dixon was allowed to retire as Chief of Defence Staff later that year. A few short years later, the "Butcher of Tivoli" was handed a lucrative contract as National Security Advisor to the Harris Administration in St Kitts and Nevis.
Gangsters in the Federation – be they from McKnight or Old Road or Lodge – are not terribly sophisticated. But they are learning. Saunders, the "Butcher of Tivoli", quickly realised that there was no chance he would get to fire a few mortars outside Basseterre, so another plan had to be hatched.
In true Daffy Duck fashion, this plan seemed "so crazy that it just might work".
Harris then systematically transformed the judicial and penal system, by placing only his most trusted people in the highest positions of authority. It was a pitiful move that showed that Harris had no real friends left, as these appointments were made to relatives only.
In particular, enter Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Denzil "Bull" Harris, and exit Prison Superintendent Junie Hodge. Denzil Harris was now in a position to identify, embrace and negotiate with gang leaders who were behind bars, seeking their favour in exchange for cold hard cash.
Hodge, for all his years of service in keeping the criminals away from society, was now relegated to working a security company to keep criminals at bay in society.
It's not an easy operation; to take taxpayers' dollars and hand it over to killers, while keeping it off the books. One would need a bank, and a banker. Fortunately for Prime Minister Harris, his brother Len just happens to be the boss at the Development Bank of St Kitts and Nevis.
From there, big brother Tim appropriated five million EC dollars to fund the Peace Initiative. The actual logistics of cash getting from the bank vault into gangs' coffers are still not clear. However, a number of names tend to surface when questions arise in this matter.
For one, Denzil Harris keeps a very tight circle within Her Majesty's Prison; namely Assistant Commissioners McArthur Browne and Adolph Harris. It is unthinkable that if collusion with gangsters were taking place, that these two senior men would not know about it.
There have been allegations that convicted fraudster-turned-radio talk-show host Niresh Nital has been observed having a lot of scheduled meetings with some of the major players, outside of his radio programme hours. Nital is also said to be favoured by the Attorney General himself, although Vincent Byron would surely deny such a claim.
But, as in all business transactions, the middle man is the key; the person who makes the markup. In this case, it is telling that such a middle man would have to be able to comfortably traverse political, prison and public boundaries freely. A prominent defence attorney in the likes of Dr Henry Browne may know such a person, but the question is if he would admit so.
Then again, as cutthroat a business that criminality is, there always seems to be some honour among thieves.
The gangsters have scored a pretty payday nonetheless. Foot soldiers receive EC $200 per week, while gang lieutenants get as much as EC $2,000 per week. Bear in mind, that this is occurring in a society in which the average worker may take home EC $1,800 after a month's labour.
With that said, the bigger question is how does Harris and Team Unity expect to sustain this project? Indeed, now that the criminals have come to the bargaining table, what's to stop them from "helping" with the election and then demanding an increase in payment? What happens when Harris can't offer that? What happens if Harris loses the election and an unsuspecting government is sworn in, only to face the wrath of shooters drug dealers who were dormant on the public dime? How many will die when the balance is interrupted?
These are the questions that all those who brokered this deal have failed to address. It's further proof of a stop-gap administration, rather than one focused on real, long-term development. This money could have been used in a myriad of other ways to save the undereducated and unemployed, and uplift the developmental status of the Federation, instead of lining the pockets of uneducated cowards who have managed to hold a bland administration to ransom.
Joel B. Liburd
Communications Consultant, Basseterre/Quebec
COMMENTARY: The content of this oped is the sole responsibility of the author.